Colts cheerleader to advocate for Army reservists

Groundbreaking woman from Randallstown links Pentagon, enlisted troops

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The salute is as sharp as a straight razor, something expected from a U.S. Army command sergeant major who has made parachute jumps around the world.

The camouflaged fatigues are starched and tailored for an impeccable fit, the spit-shined jungle boots glisten in long walks around the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon.

And all this from a former cheerleader of the Baltimore Colts.

Michele S. Jones of Randallstown is, at age 39, living military history.

She is the first woman to hold the rank of command sergeant major in charge of the U.S. Army Reserve. She is also the first woman to be chosen as the senior noncommissioned officer in any of the Army's components.

"People ask me if I am married, and I say, `Yes, I am, to Uncle Sam, to my soldiers,' " said Jones.

Jones is a primary link between the enlisted reserves personnel serving around the globe and her boss and chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly. While acting as an intermediary between the soldiers and top command, Jones also has as a top priority assisting the families of soldiers deployed in connection with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"She listens closely; she knows what makes soldiers click," said Helmly, a decorated Vietnam veteran who started in the active-duty Army as an enlisted man. "Sergeant Major Jones is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to law, compensation issues, military regulations - things soldiers and their families are touched by."

Since January, shortly after mobilization started for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jones' personal e-mail box has filled with nearly 150 contacts from reservists. They have written her about concerns ranging from family readiness issues and mentorship to what service during the war will mean to civilian and military careers.

Not everyone who is activated will wind up in the combat zone. Some reserve troops have been sent to the Middle East, but most spell active-duty soldiers who have been deployed to the war.

The Army Reserve is stocked with doctors and mechanics, accountants and cooks. And when they trade in their civilian clothes for military dress, their world is invariably turned upside down.

Emotional, financial, housing and legal support are among the areas that are Jones' responsibilities. And for those who go into harm's way, there is always the specter of casualty assistance and grief support.

Lately, Jones travels around the world - usually 20 days out of the month - tending to reserve call-ups relating to the war in Iraq. She says she is gone from her home base at the Pentagon tending not only to troops in Iraq, but also to the nearly 70,000 reservists who are deployed worldwide.

Among the units called up are 2,500 Marylanders, most having gone to the war zone. They are from units such as the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion in Aberdeen, 400th Military Police Battalion at Fort Meade, 48th Combat Support Hospital at Fort Meade and the 430th Transportation Co. in Baltimore.

The Army Reserve has a total of 205,000 enlisted personnel and officers; as many as 20,000 reservists are stationed in Iraq or Kuwait, officials said.

"Soldiers who are called up find their lifestyle drastically changed," said Jones. "One person can go from earning six figures, like a physician or lawyer, to making $15,000.

"The soldiers and their families need to know about how their monthly mortgage payment will be made, if their children can see the same pediatrician while they are deployed out of the country," Jones said.

Remarkably, she added, small-business owners to corporations display "tremendous flexibility" when men and women are called upon to serve during conflicts or emergencies. "That's just another form of patriotism that most citizens don't see or hear about."

When she was growing up near Liberty Road, Jones was fiercely independent and accepted challenges quickly.

"She went through her rebellious stage in her early teens, but if anyone ever challenged her because of her being a female, it got her blood boiling," said her father, Leon Jones, a former executive with Bristol-Myers Squibb.

"I just know that she is extremely proud that she got where she is because she earned it," the father said. "She has made tremendous sacrifices." While a student at Milford Mill High School, she was, people remember, a bright, academically gifted student.

Jones' art teacher in the ninth grade, Daisy McTighe, said, "Michele was stunningly beautiful and a good student, always prepared, and she also had a flair for art."

In her senior year at Milford Mill High, Jones became a cheerleader for the Baltimore Colts and stayed with them until 1981. Like a true Baltimorean, she remains furious that "our team was stolen from us in the dark of night. It was such a great time, a great tradition, being on the field in Memorial Stadium."

Charlette Lockett goes back to Woodmoor Elementary School with Jones, and they remain close friends today.

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